Negative feelings are natural and inevitable at times. Any normal life has its fair share of anger, worry, resentment and sadness. But learning to recognize when and why these feelings overtake us can help dissipate them before they do lasting damage. With practice, we have the ability to generate positive emotions daily—and the health benefits are real.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina now theorize that even accumulating “micro-moments of positivity” can result in greater overall wellbeing over time. These micro-moments are simply repeated, brief periods of positive feelings, and research suggests that they can protect against stress and depression and encourage physical and mental health.
Negative feelings activate the amygdala, the brain’s anxiety and fear processing center. But what happens next can influence overall health. Neuroscientists at the University of Wisconsin - Madison have shown that people with slowly recovering amygdalas once a threat comes and goes are at greater risk for a variety of health problems than in subjects for whom the amygdala recovers quickly.
Tied to this research is much evidence that the brain is plastic, or capable of generating new cells and pathways, such that it’s possible to train the circuitry in the brain to promote more positive responses. A person can learn to be more positive by practicing certain skills that foster positivity.
This is the essence of cognitive behavioral therapy, which trains patients to recognize negative feelings or unhealthy cravings, and willfully pivot away from them or push through them, in particular by questioning whether the negative conclusions causing the stress are rational or true; they very often aren’t.
Likewise, the Dalai Lama speaks of replacing negative feelings with positive ones, specifically anger, suspicion and distrust with patience, tolerance and compassion. Sure enough, the UNC team found that six weeks of training in compassion and kindness meditation resulted in an increase in positive emotions and social connectedness—and also improved function of one of the main nerves that helps control heart rate. The resulting variable heart rate is linked to tangible health benefits, including better blood glucose regulation, reduced inflammation and even faster recovery from myocardial infarction.
In light of all this, one way of thinking about it is to consider wellbeing a practicable life skill. By learning and regularly practicing skills that promote positive emotions, you can become a happier and healthier person.
Another similar variant of the Dalai Lama’s approach is “loving-kindness meditation,” which focuses on directing good wishes and positive feelings of warmth toward others. This can result in feeling more in tune with those around you.
To practice fostering positive emotions, try some of the following:
Perform kind deeds for others (e.g., give a stranger directions or help a neighbor with groceries). This exercise enhances the positive feelings in both parties.
Smell the roses (e.g., appreciate the beauty of a bird or tree on a lunchtime walk, or admire someone’s outfit). Appreciating the world around you is a kind of moment-to-moment keeping of a gratitude journal.
Develop personal relationships. Building strong social connections with friends or family members enhances feelings of self worth and is associated with better health and a longer life.
Establish achievable goals. Perhaps you want to improve your golf swing or read more books. Pick some goals but be realistic—a goal that is too challenging can create unnecessary stress.
Learn something new. Developing a skill (e.g., a new language, sport, musical instrument or software program) instills a sense of achievement, self-confidence and resilience. It also stimulates the gratification circuitry in the brain as you go from unskilled novice to more masterfully “in the zone,” an engaged, positive brain state often called flow.
Accept yourself, flaws and all. Don’t view imperfections as failures, and focus on your positive attributes and achievements.
Make lemonade. Practice resilience when life hands you lemons. Rather than let loss, stress, failure or trauma overwhelm you, use them as learning experiences on the path to a better future.
Practice mindfulness. Dwelling on past problems or future difficulties drains mental resources and steals attention from current pleasures. Let go of things you can’t control and focus on the present. Consider taking a course in insight meditation, a form of Buddhist meditation that sharply focuses on bodily sensations and mental events to gain insight into the here and now. There are several meditation apps for iOS and Android that can guide you through the process and make practicing daily as easy as pressing a button on your phone.